It has been a promising offseason for the Atlanta Falcons. For the first time in the Thomas Dimitroff era, no major off-season splash occurred. Michael Turner, Tony Gonzalez, Dunta Robinson, Ray Edwards, Asante Samuel, Steven Jackson, and Paul Soliai have been major acquisitions from a talent or money perspective. Some have been absolute splashes (Turner, Gonzalez), while other high-priced acquisitions have been absolute failures (Robinson, Edwards).
You can make a fair argument that the Dimitroff era has virtually ended. Scott Pioli has received more power within the front office. Based on the excellent draft class (on paper), Pioli’s influence has been felt in a massive way. Regardless of how you feel about Dimitroff, this was a rare low-key off-season. Based on how the last two offseasons have transpired on the field, being more reserved seems to be a wise decision.
The front office was still very active in free agency with fourteen signings. Some players won’t leave the field very often. Other players will be competing for roster spots throughout the preseason. They will be all ranked based on their capacity of potentially making a positive impact throughout the next three years.
1. Justin Durant
Usually, upside isn’t necessarily high for a player who will be turning thirty in September. Linebackers usually receive an exception, particularly outside linebackers. We’ve seen the likes of Thomas Davis and Lance Briggs play at a high level in their early thirties. Durant isn’t quite on their level, but it shows that the decline of linebackers doesn’t occur as instantly as running backs or cornerbacks usually feel going into their thirties. Unfortunately in Durant’s case, age is one of his last concerns.
The former Cowboy has only played one full season in his career. While he should be the ideal replacement for Sean Weatherspoon, it’s concerning that their injury history is relatively similar. Durant’s versatility in having experience at all three linebacker positions should prove to be vital. With Atlanta’s lack of experience (and talent) at middle linebacker, Durant is capable enough to step in and provide an upgrade as well. Some people may be puzzled on why a 30-year old player headlines a list consisting of players with upside.
Durant’s injury history and being average in coverage hinders his upside. A major difference will be noticed immediately from watching him make sideline-to-sideline plays. He doesn’t miss many tackles and can shed opposing blockers consistently. No Atlanta linebacker came close to earning those labels last year. The upside Durant brings to the table in keeping Atlanta’s front seven from being consistently overwhelmed by opposing teams exceeds the upside of any other player on this list.
Durant will be the biggest catalyst in the front seven’s improvement this season. Besides Chris Chester, he’s the only free-agent addition that will be on the field for basically every play this season. That makes him the biggest free agent signing with the most upside on this list. Versatile linebackers are hard to develop, let alone acquire in free agency. As long as he remains healthy, Durant will be the biggest difference maker from Atlanta's offseason signings for the next three seasons.
2. Adrian Clayborn
The 27-year old defensive lineman has basically only played two seasons in the NFL. In 2012, Clayborn only played three games before tearing his ACL, then he tore his bicep during Tampa Bay’s loss to Carolina in Week One last season. Clayborn’s injury history is a major concern, yet he doesn’t have much mileage on him. When the former first round pick has managed to stay on the field, promise has been shown throughout his career. The instability within the Tampa Bay organization hasn’t helped his development, as 2013 was an absolute nightmare for the franchise.
Clayborn has always been a solid run defender that can set the edge well. His ability to rush the passer hasn’t been consistent enough for such a touted player coming out of the draft. Some pundits had Clayborn possibly falling to Atlanta in the 2011 draft, before Dimitroff decided to make a blockbuster trade to draft Julio Jones. On a one-year "prove it" deal; Clayborn will be absolutely motivated to find stability in his career. Chuck Smith has worked with him extensively throughout the off-season.
The opportunity to learn new pass-rushing moves is essential for any pass-rusher. Clayborn has weighed around 280 pounds throughout his career, which isn’t ideal for a 4-3 defensive end. It's hard to have a quick first step by carrying that much weight around. If he’s unable to beat right tackles with his speed, strength and being more technical will be vital for his future. Clayborn’s upside is still relatively high and could make a strong case for being number one on the list. His extensive injury history and only having one productive season (rookie year in 2011) holds him back to an extent. A new environment could do wonders for him, along with putting in more time towards working on new techniques. Clayborn is arguably the most intriguing addition from free agency, and he should start or receive significant snaps immediately.
3. Brooks Reed
Based on his contract, Reed will have ample opportunities to prove his value. We haven’t seen Reed play much as a strong side linebacker in a 4-3 scheme. Houston moved him around throughout his career. The benefit of playing next to J.J Watt has assisted his career to an extent. Will Reed continue to be an outstanding run defender? That has to be the main reason why the organization gave him a five-year contract.
Reed shouldn’t be utilized in a pass-rushing capacity consistently. He could be effective in blitz packages, but Durant has excelled in blitz packages as well. Some fans may be underwhelmed by this signing and don’t see much upside in the former Arizona Wildcat. The possibility of seeing him play mostly as a 4-3 strong side linebacker carries upside. After Joplo Bartu's underwhelming sophomore season, Reed’s ability to shed blockers and be a more consistent tackler should provide an immediate upgrade.
Not every signing is going to be glamorous, although any player receiving a five-year contract should receive high expectations. It’s a tricky situation based on Atlanta’s desperation to add quality linebackers who won’t miss many tackles or constantly be pushed around. A five-year deal wasn’t the most ideal contract for an outside linebacker with limited pass-rush capabilities. This move still had to be done, considering how dreadful the linebackers were last year. Prince Shembo's demise, though it occurred after free agency was finished, also validates Atlanta's reasoning behind investing in multiple outside linebackers.
4. Leonard Hankerson
Injuries and drops have hindered his progression following a promising season in 2012. Hankerson has all the physical traits to be successful. At six foot two, he possesses good size to make catches in traffic. At the combine, he ran an impressive 4.43 forty time. His breakaway speed was showcased on several occasions during that infamous 2012 season. It’s hard to knock Hankerson for his lack of production due to the lack of stability within Washington's offense.
If the former Miami Hurricane can stay healthy and use his hands more, he could end up becoming a major difference maker. Many young receivers tend to catch with their body far too often. With the tutelage of Julio Jones and Roddy White, Hankerson is bound to limit those agonizing drops. Dan Quinn has spoken openly about his emergence in OTA’s. With Justin Hardy and Devin Hester (to an extent) competing for opportunities in the slot, the Falcons are loaded with options at wide receiver for the first time in over a decade.
The contrasting styles of possession receivers like White and Hardy and deep threats like Hankerson and Hester should cause significant problems for opposing defenses. Hankerson is the ultimate wild card based on his physical intangibles. It will be his job to prove that injuries and Robert Griffin, III’s lack of progression held him back from evolving into a complete wide receiver. The opportunity to eventually supplant Roddy White as the number two wide receiver is there. He'll need to prove that through his one-year "prove it" deal.
5. Tony Moeaki
Despite having a slightly more productive career than Hankerson, Moeaki falls slightly below him. It may surprise you that the age difference between both players is only two years. Moaeki is only 28 years old, yet it feels like he’s 32 years old and possibly on his last legs. The injury-riddled tight end has dealt with hamstring, elbow, shoulder, and ACL injuries throughout his career. It’s unfortunate that he hasn’t come close to his 556-yard rookie season from 2010.
Moeaki will enter training camp healthy for the first time in four years. His capabilities of being an excellent pass blocker and making catches in traffic provide plenty of intrigue. It all comes down to his health and regaining his speed. Similar to Hankerson, Moeaki hasn’t been able to work with many above average quarterbacks. Can Matt Ryan help rejuvenate Moeaki's injured-plagued career?
This is arguably his best opportunity, where the former bright prospect can be a role player on a (hopefully) dynamic passing offense. If he can become a red zone option and provide an upgrade over Levine Toilolo in the run blocking department, this will end becoming one of the more significant acquisitions from this off-season. Due to his age and capabilities as a receiver, Moeaki is higher on the list than two current starters going into the 2015 season.
6. Chris Chester
At 32 years old, it’s hard to see Chester being anything more than a stopgap player at left guard. The former second round pick will surely start this year based on his reputation and contract alone. His experience in playing under Kyle Shanahan in a zone-blocking scheme should prove to be vital. Chester wasn’t an ideal fit for the power-blocking scheme that Washington has started to implement under Jay Gruden.
A serviceable veteran is the best label for the expected starting left guard. Chester has been fairly inconsistent throughout his career, but he should bring stability to a position that desperately needed it. The ability to get out in space and block linebackers at the second level has always a strength within his repertoire. He tends to struggle in pass protection when bigger lineman start to bull rush him consistently.
It will be vital for Chester to be an asset during the next two seasons. That would allow the coaching staff to develop a rookie left guard for one season rather than throw him into the fire immediately.
7. Jacob Tamme
It may seem odd that the current starting tight end is below a current backup tight end. This list is based off upside, which is limited for a 30-year old player that hasn’t started over the past two seasons. Tamme has excellent hands and can find openings in zone coverage on a consistent basis. His high football IQ has propelled him into being a reliable player.
For a player who isn’t very athletic, Tamme’s longevity is quite impressive. The former Kentucky Wildcat is the ideal role player to help move the chains and be utilized in the red zone. Atlanta’s struggles in the red zone last year tend to go unnoticed. While the stats don’t fully showcase the issue, Matt Ryan had difficulty finding open receivers in the red zone. Besides Julio Jones, no other receiver was able to make a consistent impact in the red zone.
Tamme’s upside is clearly limited at this point. That shouldn’t discount his value in making catches under duress. He could end up producing three solid seasons for Atlanta. Notwithstanding his limited upside, Tamme should be a solid addition at Ryan's disposal. Just temper expectations in recognizing him as the fourth or fifth receiving option at best.
8. O’Brien Schofield
When it comes to defensive role players, there isn’t a more intriguing player on the current roster than Schofield. The former Wisconsin Badger has proven to be versatile and able to play multiple positions. Whether it’s lining up on the edge to pass rush or adjusting to being a strong-side linebacker, Schofield has been eager to step up.
His reunion with Dan Quinn from Seattle increases the intrigue based on having valuable past experience. Nobody is expecting Schofield to play 30 to 35 snaps a game. The expectations for him should revolve around being an efficient situational pass rusher. Stansly Maponga has failed to develop into a situational pass-rusher. Schofield’s versatility and speed off the edge can be a difference maker for such a non-existent pass rush. Besides a declining Osi Umenyiora, the Falcons had minimal speed off the edge last year (refusing to play Jonathan Massaquoi didn’t help the cause).
At 28 years old, the time is now for Schofield to become a mainstay in Atlanta. He couldn’t ask for a better opportunity than playing on a defense craving playmakers amongst their front seven. After being snubbed by the Giants, Schofield is geared up to move past his one-year "prove it deal" and find stability in his career.
9. Mike Person
According to Pro Football Focus, Person hasn’t played more than 66 snaps in a season. He was starting at left guard in OTA’s. In unsurprising fashion, the Falcons upgraded that position by signing Chester. Person will be a player to watch closely in preseason, as the left guard position could be open once again next season. A strong preseason could do wonders for him. The former Ram is an unknown commodity at this point, which makes his three-year contract somewhat confusing. He should face stern competition against the Jets and Dolphins during preseason.
10. Tyler Polumbus
Expectations are beyond minimal for Polumbus. Similar to Chester, the former Redskin has past experience with Shanahan's zone blocking scheme. That seems to have merited the signing, along with additional depth at the right tackle position. It appears that Polumbus will fulfill Gabe Carimi’s old role. With Lamar Holmes suffering from a broken foot, Polumbus will receive plenty of opportunities to silence critics during preseason. He was underwhelming in minicamp according to ESPN’s Vaughn McClure.
11. Jared Smith
Smith will likely be battling for a roster spot. The former Seahawk will look to make his mark at both guard positions. Smith played defensive tackle in college, so the coaching staff in Seattle clearly viewed him as a project. They decided not to re-sign him without ever giving him much of an opportunity. Similar to Person, it’ll be fascinating to see if an unknown player can break out into becoming a quality guard. Harvey Dahl’s emergence towards becoming an above-average right guard was unforeseen by analysts and the entire fan base.
12. Phillip Adams
Another former Seahawk that will be reuniting with Quinn. This seems strictly as a depth signing based on Adams’ resume. It’s never a good sign, when a player is only 27 years old and will be playing for his fifth team already. The former seventh round pick has become known for getting burnt on numerous occasions. He’ll be competing with Dezmen Southward for the fourth cornerback spot, along with potentially playing in dime packages. Other than playing special teams, you won’t see Adams on the field much this season.
13. Colin Mooney
Unless Mooney can provide an upgrade in the blocking department, it’s hard to see him making the team. Patrick DiMarco has been average at best over the past two seasons. The opportunity is there for Mooney to become a starter. His resume isn't overly impressive from his days at Tennessee. After not playing last season, it would be quite the comeback story.
14. Allen Bradford
The last player to come from Seattle to reunite with Dan Quinn. Bradford was on Seattle's practice squad throughout last season. The former college running back has now converted into becoming a middle linebacker. Nate Stupar will look for more support on special teams, which Bradford can provide with his blistering speed. Durant would likely play middle linebacker, if Paul Worrilow were to get injured. Bradford’s best opportunity to make the team would be from making an impact on special teams.